Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Political Rhetoric

I was a little disturbed yesterday when listening to the Craig Fahle Show on WDET in Detroit.  He was discussing the violent rhetoric that runs rampant from both the left and the right of America's political divide.  Everyone who was interviewed or who called in was more interested in getting in their zinger than they were in engaging in substantive talk about the issue at hand.  The entire debate reminded me very clearly of a conversation I had with Gumpy when I was young.

When President Reagan was elected for his first term, I was seven years old.  All I really remember of that election was how upset Gumpy was at the outcome, yet is was my first memory of politics.  Gumpy was open about his politics with me, even at that young age.  Dinner at Ema and Gumpy's was always accompanied with the Sony Trinitron TV blasting the CBS Nightly News, followed by the McNeil/Lehrer Newshour on PBS.  I would end up with many questions and receive many answers from Gumpy.  He was certainly passionate about his politics!

One day, Gumpy was completely exasperated by something he read in the Lansing State Journal.  It was probably something to do with the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike because it was Reagan's shot across the bow to unions that he intended erode the gains unions had fought hard to win.  This was always a sore subject given the amount of work Gumpy did within the union to help his fellow members.  I had commented to him that I wished the President would just hurry up and die.

Gumpy stopped everything, turned to me and exclaimed, "Never speak that way about anybody, especially the President!  I might not agree with him but you NEVER wish death on anybody!"

It was the first and one of the few times, I remember Gumpy ever scolding me.  He was always a praise first type of person.  For him to address me like that was completely out of character and was absolutely sobering for me.  He really had a lot of respect for the office of the President, even when he did not agree with the person in office.  I watched him over the years always criticize an action a politician rather than criticize the person.

From then on, Gumpy and I would focus on the political issues.  Informed debate was the order of the day when politics was the subject.  There were several times we did not agree, President Clinton and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was one of those times.  Our national security was one of those topics where we rarely found common ground.  Yet the debate was not personal, and that is what spurred my intense interest in politics.

That is what disturbed me about what I heard on the radio.  Callers on both sides of the aisle were more interested in getting off pot shots than about making a meaningful contribution to the conversation.  The guests were more interested in steering the debate toward issues of their interest, not the issues they were on the air to discuss.  All seemed to refuse to directly answer questions.

People venting their spleens do nothing to move our country forward; it serves only to further divide and enslave us.  People engaging in honest, informed dialogue can kick start ideas that help us create a more just society.  I am glad I had Gumpy to teach me that lesson.  

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Our Last Roadtrip

In honor of a few friends who are participating in Chevy's South by Southwest Confernece roadtrip challenge, I will tell you the humorous tale of the last true road trip I took with Gumpy.  In case you want to know more about the roadtrip challenge, you can learn more at Team Detroit's website or by following the #DETChevySXSW hashtag on Twitter.  They're having fun I tell ya!

The winter after Gumpy was told he had pancreatic cancer, he decided he still wanted to go back down to Port Charlotte, FL to spend the winter.  There was a ton of coordination needed for this to happen successfully and Ema was certainly busy.  Getting visits scheduled with his doctor down there, arrainging for in-home physical therapy and scheduling the visiting nurses to come check on his intraveinous port were only the tip of the iceburg.  Ema did it without complaint.  

Part of the reason he was so weak was a blood infection he developed before they were scheduled to leave.  The chemotherapy and radiation had stopped the tumor growth while almost destroying the man. He had congestive heart failure after a bleeding incident that landed him in the hospital that August for almost two weeks.  He would tell you that his body was in a weakened condition but his fighting spirit was not.

My grandparents always made it a point to be home by before the Vermontville Maple Syrup Festival the last full weekend in April.  And Gumpy loved making the drive home.  We never discussed why, but I know I love the funny little things that happen on roadtrips.  The scenery in this country can be breathtaking and there is an uncertainty about a trip that appeals to me.  I like to think those were the reasons Gumpy liked roadtrips too.

Anyway, it was somehow decided that I would drive them home that year.  Gumpy was too weak to drive and Ema would have too much to manage with driving a grumpy Gumpy.  So I flew to Fort Meyers where my grandparents picked me up, we went to dinner at Bob Evans and I started packing their Buick Rendezouz.  I mention the packing because that is always a chore.  In an effort to not be wasteful, my grandmother likes to haul things back and forth from Vermontville to Port Charlotte.  This step is always the most painstaking in the journey because we never have enough room for everything we need to bring home.  Ever.

The next morning with a packed car and a summerized park model trailer, we hit I-75 for home.  Gumpy was always a masterful backseat driver.  There was never any question in your mind that he was perfectly in tune with everything you were doing behind the wheel because of his constent stream of comments.  When he was in good health, I was usually immune to such chatter but he was not feeling well and had been unable to drive for almost a full year so he backseat drove with reckless abandon.  Mostly about my penchant to do the speed limit on the interstate.  I feel it is highly important bordering on necessary to be going the speed limit.  He did not.  Our ensuing discussion was resolved when I reminded him that I had the car keys and could run faster than he could if needed.  

Which brought us to lunch at the great American classic eatery Bob Evans.  Gumpy loved that place.  Usually he would order the fried mush, but he decided to repeat his choice from the previous night which was sausuage gravy and biscuits.  His appetite was as strong as ever and he plowed through his lunch like a warm knife through butter.  This would normally be unremarkable except he decided that he wanted to go to Bob Evans for dinner.  He started about 4:30 by saying at every exit, "I think there's a Bob Evans at this exit."  When we would pass the exit with no sign of his resturant, he would usually say something like, "Balls.  Well, maybe there's one at the next exit."  This cycle repeated itself for what seemed like an eternity.

Remarkably, there were no Bob Evans resturants in Atlanta.  In fact, there were none in the entire state of Georgia.  I found this out by placing a frantic call to my sister at 5:30 in the afternoon to inform her that she better go online and find me a Bob Evans or she would need a new brother.  She helped anyway.  To my chagrin, she told me that the next Bob Evans would not come until we were in Kentucky, a full days drive away.  So we decided to stop at the next best thing, which was a Cracker Barrel.  And he ordered the sausage gravy and biscuits again!

Gumpy had lost so much weight during his cancer treatments and ensuing infections that we all hated to discourage eating.  At one point, his oncologist told us to forget his diabetes and just feed him a lot of whatever he wanted to eat.  Ema and I hated to discourage his food choice for the third meal in a row, but we were both a little concerned about the consequences.  Fortunately, after we found a hotel to spend the night at, our concerns proved to have no merit and he slept soundly.

However the next night we were not so fortunate.  You see, our breakfast that morning took us to another Cracker Barrel because Gumpy insisted on a good country breakfast.  Which consisted of sausage gravy and bisciuts.  Again!  For lunch, Ema and I refused to stop anywhere that might serve his favorite meal.  When we stopped in Troy, OH for the night, we found yet another Bob Evans.  And again, Gumpy ate the sausage gravy and busciuts.  For five meals in three days, sausage gravy and buscuits.  We knew something had to give.  And it did.

In order to save a little cash coming home (or to be frugal as Ema would say), we all shared a hotel room.  I had insisted on staying somewhere decent on the second night so I could sleep without cramping up.  The trip was exhausting for all of us, so we were in bed pretty early that night.  After a few hours of sleep, I heard Ema trying to wake Gumpy up and could here the most horrible sounding passing of gas you could imagine.  His diet finally caught up with him with such voracity that none of us got much more sleep.  

The drive to Vermontville was mercifly short that day.  Much of the drive was completed with the windows open so we would not be asphixiated by the noxious fumes of Gumpy.  When we arrived at the farm that afternoon, I was ready for my ride back to Detroit.  I was tired, a little cross, full of good stories, unsolicited advise and a few more memories I will always cherish.     

Monday, March 8, 2010

"Here Booze!"

was a child of the Great Depression.  His family lost their farm and ended up moving several times within the Village of Waldron. My great-grandfather and my great-grandmother (GG) were both hard working people, but farming villages throughout this country were decimated by the Depression.  Keep in mind, this was also during the tail end of Prohibition, an ill-fated experiment in American history where drinking anything stronger than hot coffee was illegal.  

Now here is a hard-working poor family in the middle of a small Michigan farming community struggling to make ends meet.  My great-grandfather loved to hunt, so they ended up with a raccoon-hunting dog.  Young Elbert (Gumpy) was tasked with the job of naming the dog.  One name stuck in his mind because it seemed that everyone in town was talking about it.  Much to GG's chagrin, he named the dog Booze.  Nothing could talk Gumpy out of that name.  Nothing could save GG from the embarrassment of having to holler, "Here Booze," when she wanted the dog to come in the house.

From then on, Gumpy usually had a dog of some type.  Chico 1 was the first dog my mom, aunt and uncle remember.  A family friend, who had spent considerable money preparing Chico as a show dog, was unable to care for the young Boxer dog any longer.  After Chico 1 died of cancer, Chico 2 appeared on the scene.  Chico 2 was great a pulling the clumps of dirt out of the disc when Gumpy was plowing the field, which proved to be quite a useful and time-saving skill.

When I was young, there was Shep.  Shep was a blue-merle Australian Shepard.  Like many of the farm animals, Shep was technically a rescue.  She was the most patient and loving dog I could have hoped for, even after she was kicked in the head by a horse.  Epilepsy and the resulting seizures cut Shep's life short but fueled my love for dogs.  As always, Shep made it plain that she was Gumpy's dog first.

Gumpy even loved having my dogs around too.  When he was too frail to move around easily, I trained my dog at the time Nash to sit next to him so Gumpy had someone to pet.  Gumpy would just reach down and pet Nash without a thought.  He just loved having a dog in the house.  A dog was just another person with a few extra legs to love.  

Friday, March 5, 2010

Gumpy's Relationship with Ema

As I walked into the lobby at Ingham Regional Hospital in the spring of 1993, Ema was sitting in a chair crying softly.  This was an emotion I was not use to seeing from my grandmother.  She is a stoic Midwesterner, determined never to let anyone know that anything could upset her.  Clearly she had not seen me walk through the door because she was startled when I sat next to her.  Quickly the tears were wiped away so that no trace of her emotional indiscretion could be seen and she began insisting that she was just catching her breath on a difficult day.

It was the first of many visits to a hospital for Gumpy's heart. It was the first time I had seen Ema so emotional.  It was the first time I fully understood that their marriage was one filled with love, kindness, respect and concern for each other.

Growing up, I was a bit more accustomed to the  adversarial parts of their relationship.  We would joke that they should be called the Bickersons for the way they would go after each other.  Never violent or hateful, just ceaseless nitpicking from both parties.

As an example of their voracity, my grandparents took Rebekah and I to Idaho to visit our Uncle Jim and his family one year.  After loading the fifth-wheel and truck for a month-long trip, we drove for about two hours before the bickering started.  He was determined that she was a horrible navigator and she was convinced that he had no idea how to get around Chicago.  After our stop for lunch, Ema took residence in the seat behind Gumpy to keep the peace where she remained whenever the trailer was in tow.

What I did not know or understand then was the depth of their relationship.  I might never fully understand it but I certainly know a great deal more now.  Gumpy always enjoyed it when Ema would get dressed up for an evening out.  He thought his Little Biddy was beautiful and that she deserved to have nice clothing.  So when he would travel for work, he would stop at the big department store in the city he was in and buy her an outfit.  He loved giving her gifts, even if they were a little self serving like golf clubs!

In private, he would rarely let on if he was angry with her.  He did not speak ill of Ema and would not allow me to either.  Truth be told, it was only the minor stuff they bickered about.  When it came to big family issues, they spoke with one voice out of respect for each other.  He would joke that when they got married, they came to a mutual decision.  She would make all of the small decisions and he would make all of the big decisions.  "And so far, there haven't been any big decisions to make!" he would say.

When we talked soon after his cancer diagnosis, he made me promise to take good care of my grandmother.  He only wanted the best for her.  He wanted to know his Little Biddy was in good hands.  He was always concerned about her well-being, even if they had a funny way of showing their love.

The day I saw Ema cry, she was facing a lot in her life.  The stress of making life altering decisions, the strain of watching helplessly as her best friend was in tremendous pain and the prospect of loosing her confidant had caught up with her.  Frankly I am glad because I learned so much in that tender moment.  I learned I wanted to be married to a woman who would be my friend, my confidant and my biggest cheerleader too.    

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Career Advice

The first time I was unemployed, Gumpy advised me to go right down to General Motors headquarters and apply for a job because they are always hiring college educated people.  Mind you, this was in 1999 where only an advanced degree in engineering or business would get you in the door.  My degree in Political Science just did not seem to prepare me for anything.  He was pretty insistent on this, which perplexed me until I realized that when he was my age, his advise would have been very accurate.

Although his answer to my dilemma seemed out of touch, his intent was pure.  He just wanted to see me succeed in whatever I chose to do with my career.  In fact, he wanted that for all of his kids and grandkids.  That is why he was so insistent on me learning to play golf.  When he was the General Secretary Treasurer for the Brotherhood of Railway, Airline and Steamship Clerks; this is how he saw business executives get ahead and he wanted to give me the best opportunity.  In the economy we now face, this piece of advise seems a bit dated too.

What he did not realize was that he had been teaching me all along one of the most important tools for succeeding in life.  Getting along with all types of people from all types of backgrounds was a strength of his.  He excelled at making the people he talked with feel like they were the most important person in the room.  It was this advise, received because of his unconscious competence in this area, that I heard loud and clear.  I have tried to emulate his success and it has served me very well.

I think the best example of his ability came after his memorial service.  A few weeks after the service, Ema started giving his clothing away.  His fight with cancer had been an ugly three year ordeal and I am sure she wanted to distance herself from the ugliness as quickly as possible.  After the family had the opportunity to take a few articles of clothing we selected, she started giving things to friends of his around Vermontville.

One gentleman in particular was very grateful.  He is a very proud man, worked very hard and lived a rather hard life.  He did not have a good relationship with his kids.  His wife was not doing well in her fight with cancer either.  Yet, he showed an uncharacteristic amount of generosity toward my grandparents.  Especially after Gumpy's cancer diagnosis.

Ema decided to take a few of Gumpy's neckties to him even though she was not sure if he would ever wear one.  He became pretty emotional while she was there and talked for quite a while about Gumpy.  It seems that he never felt like many people in town really liked him but Gumpy always had time to talk with him.  Gumpy made him feel important, so he felt like he needed to help when the chips were down for Gumpy.  He was truly grateful for Ema's gesture and grateful for Gumpy's friendship.

I titled this post career advise because all the advise Gumpy gave me for my career were usually a generation or two old for the job marketplace I was facing.  The advise he gave unconsciously through his actions spoke the loudest and has been the key to the modicum of success I have achieved.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tiger Stadium

Everytime I drive by the corner of Michigan and Trumbell, the nostaligic kid in me is a little upset for the lost of Detroit's baseball Mecca.  I remember it best as Tiger Stadium, which was the last and longest held name for the field.  Navin Field, Briggs Stadium and Bennett Park were all names attached to that piece of real estate.  The Detroit Tigers won four baseball World Series championships there and the Lions won four National Football League championships at the corner well before the Super Bowl became a national holiday.

My memories of Gumpy and Tiger Stadium are limited, mostly because we started going to more games together after the Tigers moved to Comerica Park after the 1999 season.  He had a number of great memories at Tiger Stadium though and he loved to share his stories.  

Perhaps his favorite and the one I remember most is about the first game he ever saw at Briggs Stadium (as it was known then).  He was a big baseball fan, playing ball with his cousin Harold "Tink" Farnham and listening to the occasional game on the radio.  His first experience walking into Briggs was quite impressive.

He attended the game with his father Frank and his brother Vernal.  Vernal was several years older than Gumpy and was a pretty decent hitter in his own right.  From their seats, they had a pretty good view of the left field fence.  It was 340 feet from home plate to the fence and Vernal thought it looked pretty short.  Short enought that he was convinced he could belt the ball right over the fence.  That is until Vic Wertz came to bat. 

Wertz was a scrappy ballplayer, fighting is way back to the majors after a bout with polio.  He was a tremendous hitter with great power, finishing in the top 10 in home runs most years.  He might be best known for hitting the ball that Willie Mays made his famous catch on in the 1945 World Series.  Most importantly, he was one of Gumpy's favorite players.  

Just as Wertz came to bat, Vernal leaned over to Gumpy to declare that he thought he could pop the ball over left field.  That is when Wertz hit the ball harder than any ball Gumpy had ever witnessed and the left fielder caught it on the warning track.  So much for his brother's bragging.  And so solidified a young man's undying love for Detroit Tigers baseball.